Fall is prime time for bouldering in the Southeastern United States. Cool weather and retreating poison ivy lure climbers like me back into the woods to our favorite problems. And while the region’s tall cliffs and granite domes might be the most obvious targets for climbers, the boulder fields hidden in the forest are rapidly starting to outshine the bigger routes in our region, in part because they’re “new.” Boulder fields are the most recent rocks to be developed in the Southern Appalachians. The cliffs at Rumbling Bald near Asheville, North Carolina, for instance, have captivated climbers since the ’70s, but nearby boulder fields didn’t start attracting attention until the mid ’90s. As climbers continue to develop these crags, they’re becoming a coveted resource.
Chris Dorrity agrees. The author of Rumbling Bald Bouldering Guide says the bouldering in the South is as good as anywhere in the country. “The rock quality is outstanding and there are a lot of fields with concentrated boulders that are pretty close to each other, so it’s easy to link a few different places together in a weekend,” he says.
Here’s a quick guide to the best bouldering in the Southern Appalachians, from West Virginia to Alabama.
- Location: Approximately 2 hours southwest of Roanoke, Virginia
- Rating: V0–V13
- Best for: Bouldering with a view
An extensive trail network meanders through high-elevation meadows in Grayson Highlands, providing access to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and giving lucky visitors a glimpse of the small feral pony population that calls the region home. But the real treasure lies in the park’s boulder fields—some of the highest in the South—which offer climbers a rare summer destination below the Mason Dixon Line. Climbing continues through the fall, and thanks to the park’s remote location and numerous rock fields, crowds are essentially non-existent. And with more than 1,000 developed routes, you’ll find everything from V0 to V13. The Listening Rock Trail Boulders and Boneyard Boulders offer the highest concentration of problems and easy access, but the most scenic pebbles are in The Highlands Area, which sits above tree line at 5,000 feet and has long views to spare. Highland Highball, a 20-foot tall V2 with an early crux, massive jugs and top-out with a 360-degree view of neighboring Mount Rogers, is the classic here.
- Location: 20 minutes northeast of Morgantown, West Virginia
- Rating: V0–V7
- Best for: Multisport weekends
This 120,000-acre state park in northwest West Virginia tends to be overshadowed by the thousands of climbing routes in nearby New River Gorge, but if bouldering with a side of mountain biking or hiking is your thing, Coopers Rock State Forest needs to be on your list. You won’t be climbing alone, as the forest hovers over the Cheat River, making it popular with students at West Virginia University who come for the rocks and the view. Still, with several hundred established routes, there’s ample room to spread out. Gritstone boulders—known for their coarse texture and huge features, like jugs and slopers—form mazes between the hardwoods. Friction is your friend with these oversized holds. The Roadside area offers an array of problems with an easy approach (there’s some rope climbing here, too), but there are half a dozen fields to explore. Tilted Tree has the most concentrated problems of all the areas. There, Black Scar (V1) is easy on beginners with multiple hold options as it works its way up a 15-foot tall vertical hunk of stone. Bring spotters for the top out, as it’s a long fall to your crash pad. The Cave Route (V3) has you work your way up the interior wall of a cave. And Tomb Raider (V3) is a moderate option that begins with a sit start, showing off the area’s signature slopers. When you’re done climbing for the day, explore the forest’s 50 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. A note for winter enthusiasts: The front gate closes for the season from Dec. 31 to March 31, but you can still access the park to climb and hike. It even becomes a hot spot for cross-country skiing during rare powder dumps.
- Location: 1 hour, 45 minutes north of Atlanta, Georgia
- Rating: V0–V9
- Best for: A remote weekend in the woods
The long, bumpy dirt road to Rocktown’s parking lot helps keep the crowds down despite the national recognition this destination has received in the last decade. The sandstone bouldering field sits atop Pinnacle Mountain in the no-frills, 20,000-acre Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area. There are more than 500 established routes, with locals and visitors putting up new problems all the time. The Orb (V8) sits just a few minutes from the parking lot. It’s named after an odd-shaped boulder with a difficult roof reserved for only the best climbers. But there are plenty of other routes, too. Move deeper into the forest, and you’ll find signature routes, like El Classico, a V0 slab with a tall, but easy top out, and Golden Shower, a V5 full of large slopers that become stickier in colder months. You’ll need a hunting or fishing license to visit the area, and you should keep an eye out for hunting closures in the fall and early winter. But camping is free, which makes this an easy and inexpensive weekend adventure.
Horse Pens 40, Alabama
- Location: 1 hour northeast of Birmingham, Alabama
- Rating: V0–V12
- Best for: Climbing with amenities
If Southern boulderers had an amusement park, it’d be Horse Pens 40. And for $10 a day, this privately owned nature park on top of Chandler Mountain, northeast of Birmingham, is yours to explore. Walk HP40’s main 2-mile loop trail that meanders through a boulder field with more than 300 established routes. Known for their unique shape and bulbous nature, the sandstone boulders often resemble giant mushrooms or even turtles, meanings the bouldering here is all about the slopers. The quantity and quality of smooth sandstone has made it not only one of the best bouldering fields in the country, climbers sometimes compare it to the world-famous rack in Fontainebleau, France. Plus, there’s on-site camping with restrooms, showers and even a general store that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, so all you have to worry about is ticking off your bucket list. Bumboy is a good place to start. The V3 might be the best example of what to expect from Horse Pens. It’s a broad, water-grooved boulder with rows and rows of massive slopers. Imagine a giant brain made of gray rock.
- Location: 45 minutes southeast of Asheville, North Carolina
- Rating: V0–V12
- Best For: Winter climbing
This 3,020-foot mountain might be better known for its traditional routes on steep cliffs, but bouldering at the base of those cliffs began taking off in the ’90s. Today, the pebble wrestling at Rumbling Bald is becoming more popular than the trad climbing. The mountain, which sits inside Chimney Rock State Park, has one of the largest boulder fields in the south, with at least 1,000 documented problems and a lifetime’s worth of development still lingering in boulders hidden throughout the forest. The problems are divided into three main boulder fields: West Side, East Side and Central. Check out Silver Platter (V2), an overhanging crack in the East Side area, or Kung Fu Grip (V5) in the West Side Boulders, a steep 15-foot boulder that demands a number of heel hooks. Southern exposure and warmer temperatures make this one of the best winter climbing destinations in the Southeast, meanwhile a new parking lot and improved trail system have made Rumbling Bald more user-friendly in recent years.